Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Decision Dilemma: In light of Obama's weak SOTU

I'm not sorry to admit that I didn't watch the State of the Union speech. I can't stand long speeches full of lies and never-to-be-kept promises. Last year's SOTU was a major disappointment, showing Obama was out of touch, so I dreaded this one.

I saved myself from an hour of distasteful labor, and figured I'd read the reviews afterward. So, what did I read:
  • Andrew Sullivan said that there were too many tax deduction--(one for every color of initiative I suppose).
  • A bunch of forgettable partisan stuff (which I've forgotten).
  • Obama never mentioned the deficit, as though it doesn't exist.
My heart sinks. I want Obama to embrace Simpson-Bowles and dare Congress not to pass it. So with this air of disappointment (self-inflicted), I search through the transcript, looking for his proposals for deficit reduction. This is typical:
When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it's not because they envy the rich. It's because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don't need and the country can't afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference - like a senior on a fixed income; or a student trying to get through school; or a family trying to make ends meet.
So deficit-reduction will be accomplished by raising taxes on the wealthy. The already-agreed $200 billion per year, out of a $3+ trillion dollar budget, is all the spending cuts that Obama envisions.

A Candidate with Scissors
I'm serious about reducing the deficit. I think we have only a limited time left to do it before our debt service eats up too much of our economy. I'd like the largest part of deficit reduction (maybe 80%) to come from spending cuts. Why? To give people more money that they can control directly. To reduce waste and low priority spending.

So I start wondering if I need to support Romney to get any spending cuts. If I remember correctly, he has some fairly definite plans to drop federal employment by attrition, hiring one person for every ten who leave. I wonder about the other consequences if Romney were to be elected. There's the Supreme Court, the question on whether he would curb the crazy overreach plans of the Republicans in Congress. I think he would.

I'm beginning to think I might vote for Romney, though I'm glad the vote is a long ways off. I'll get a better measure of his intentions based on whom he chooses for VP and how he campaigns for the general election. I remember how MikeR, an occasional commenter at the Atlantic, challenged readers to support whoever would effect the most deficit reduction, even if it was Michele Bachmann. I was never going to go as far as that crazy lady, but Romney meets the sanity test, so he's a possibility. I realize some of the risks, but I'll be considering Romney if that's what it takes to reduce the federal budget in this country.

Then I remember-- Romney will maintain the Bush tax cuts. Those ridiculous 15% tax rates on capital gains and dividends will carry on, probably without a sunset next time. No matter that the deficit is as high as it is. That decides it. Obama is more serious about cutting the deficit because he'll take a scissors to those tax cuts. It's not the only fiscal change we need, but it's a major chunk of it. I'm back to supporting Obama.


Anastasios said...


Good points, as usual. I would only add that Romney has pledged to eliminate the estate tax forever, a prospect I think is socially horrifying.

Would he check Republicans in Congress? With the help of a Democratic majority in the Senate, perhaps. Without that, I doubt it. Remember the literature that Bernstein keeps citing that Presidents usually find themselves strait-jacketed by their campaign rhetoric. Given that Romney will have to continue pandering fairly severely to keep his troops in line this Fall, he probably won't be able to pull a 180 in the White House unless he has at least one Democratic house of Congess to give him cover in the mode of Clinton. I don't think he would be quite as spineless as GWB, but he would probably go farther in that direction than many would expect (as, after all, did GWB). It's more a factor of the power dynamics between the President and Congress than anything about the preferences of individual actors.

But you are also right that Obama is strait-jacketed as well. I think given his preferences he would be more of a deficit hawk (although never as much as some would like), but I think the way the debt ceiling fiasco played out has convinced him there just isn't a political future in that at this particular moment. Not brave, as you say, and maybe not very admirable. But those are qualities not usually associated with politicians of any ideological flavor.

ModeratePoli said...

I agree that a Dem majority in the Senate is the best check on the House, but the Dems have only about a 1 in 4 chance of holding on to the Senate.

The reason I think Romney will curb the radical measures of the House is that I've seen him go with the preferences of his constituency. So it depends on who he sees as his constituency if and when he's president. Will he view the whole country as his constituency, the center-right, or just the firm right.

I don't expect anyone to pull a 180 in office, but he may move 30 degrees or a bit more.

As for staying to the right for the general election campaign, Romney has probably studied what it did and didn't do for McCain. I don't think he'll go the same route because there are more moderates that could be captured in this election than in 2008. But this is speculation and prediction, which is very swampy stuff.

About eliminating the estate tax, I don't find it "socially horrifying" and I don't know what you mean by that. I don't have a problem with the morality of inherited wealth, and I don't think government deserves a big chunk of estates. And that chunk has sometimes been very big--55%. I sure wouldn't want the government to take 55% of my hard-earned savings. I don't have a problem with a more modest tax rate (maybe 15-25%). The exclusions are a good idea.

The huge estates, several 100 million and more, are usually industrious families who've worked hard and smart, and who also have set up philanthropies. It's much less commonly robber barons, and this is one chance for the proletariat to scratch back the money. In this case I'd let some guilty go rather than burden the good.

Anastasios said...


The estate tax debate is one we should probably just agree to disagree about.

As far as Romney and his constituency, I don't think Presidents think in quite those terms. The dynamics of the office inevitably push them toward the construction and maintenance of a power base from which to negotiate with the myriad other power centers of the country (okay, maybe I am playing with semantics). The power base of the President rests firmly in his own party, particularly that portion which has the greatest voice in Congress. Trying to deviate from that is tricky in the extreme. Clinton was able to do so to an extent, but he had cover from, of all people, Newt Gingich, and because the Democratic party at that time had a powerful, indeed plurality, moderate wing (and because his shift to the right was not in reality as marked as it has come to seem in memory). Carter, on the other hand, tried to battle the dominant wing of his own party without cover, appealing to the country as a whole, and moderates in particular, for support. The result was a disaster even before Iran and the rise of Reagan.

I suspect Romney, with his knowledge of politics and corporate boardrooms, understands these dynamics very well. If his instincts are indeed moderate (and they may not be, after all who is to say he was not pandering in MA and being honest now, rather than the reverse) the a Democratic Senate may give him cover to express them, especially if the GOP majority in the House is also narrowed. If, on the other hand he has a GOP majority in both houses with a strong Tea Party element (and that is the most likely scenario should the Republicans do well enough to put him over the top) then I think he will prove a far too canny politician to go against the tide in any major way.

After all, everything being said about Romney was being said about GW Bush. I lived in Texas in 2000 and liked Bush a lot. He seemed a very moderate, decent sort, ready to work with Democrats and stand up to the extreme wing of his own party. When in Washington faced with a GOP congress he changed. I really don't think he changed personally at all. I came to DC in the last part of his Presidency and he seemed the same George from TX. But his actions and political profile shifted markedly (even by TX standards). Despite what we want to think, the actions of a canny President are shaped much less by personal conviction than by power dynamics and a shrewd understanding of the Washington system. Romney is smart and shrewd, and those very virtues would make him a very weak reed on which to lean in the face of a conservative wind.

Erik said...

You're concerned with taxes and the deficit? Then you should mistrust candidates of both main parties about equally. Both accept legalized bribery in the form of campaign donations and other rewards.

As an example of the financial burden created by special interest influence, the banking deregulation and other policies that led to our current economic hardships (and deficit spending to compensate) resulted mainly from lobbying of both Democrats and Republicans by corporations involved in finance and housing. And I suspect that our decisions about if (and for how long) we wage costly wars are influenced by defense contractors. I'm sure there are many more possible examples.

I read that Obama raised about $750 million for his 2008 campaign "war chest". For me, the answer is not a Republican with a $750 million war chest (or anything remotely close to that much money).

Those millions indicate, among other things, how beholden Obama is to special interests and powerful campaign contributors. The Republican candidate is just as indebted to them, so how do I avoid electing someone who has been corrupted by that quasi-bribery?

Instead, we need somebody like this:
Notice his $100 donation limit. We must vote for that kind of candidate, to eliminate corruption. And he's a former governor, so it's not like he's an inexperienced oddball.

If I were a Republican, maybe I would keep casting protest votes for somebody like that, and hope that other voters also will rebel one of these years.

But the Republican Party would spend corporate donations on his behalf, if he won his party's nomination. He might be mindful of that support, and feel pressured to reward it.

So we really need a centrist third party (so both Democrats and Republicans might tolerate voting for its candidates) that refuses all special interest money. Until that happens, I'll keep casting protest votes for random minor party candidates.

The great problem for that kind of candidate is that he will be thoroughly outspent by candidates who accept influence money and buy lots of mainstream media advertising. Because too many unthinking or lazy voters only consider heavily promoted candidates, most contestants feel compelled to raise as much money as possible, and many media pundits and voters assume that poorly funded candidates cannot win.

The mutual fear of the opponent's campaign spending is a terrible trap stopping us from removing the corruption. Democratic and Republican voters must recognize this trap we are in, and then stubbornly refuse to allow that fear to push them into voting for bought politicians who seem "electable" because they are heavily marketed.

ModeratePoli said...


I'm sorry I'm so late in responding. I took a pleasant break from my blog. Though you make a strong argument for protest votes against the major parties, I don't think it's strong enough to overcome the reason to choose a major party candidate: one of the guys is doing to be considerably worse than the other. I think that was amply demonstrated in 2000 with Florida. It's hard to imagine that Gore would have gotten us into the trouble that Bush did as president.

As for removing corporation finance from campaigns, the legislative attempts haven't had staying power. Maybe the voluntary "clean" campaigns will. We can support them and hope.